What Did You Learn Today?

I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning to sail my ship.
– Aeschylus

In college, my friend Gabriel and I used to ask each other this question: “What did you learn today?” It is hard to remember the exact parameters of this exchange. Did we ask each other every day? For a few weeks, or the better part of a year? It may have been a passing fancy or a practice to which we adhered with religious intensity for as long as the passion lasted. What I do recall is how much I loved the question.

“What did you learn today?” Imagine ending your day with someone you love asking you this and really listening to your answer. Imagine then offering up the same curiosity, sitting back, and hearing how the other’s mind has opened up, even if only by the slightest degree, that day.

Imagine walking through your world, knowing that someone is waiting to know what you have taken in.

Gabriel was the most precious companion during those wide-open years of our early twenties. The world around us was a fecund jungle, exploding with exotic curiosities. He was always willing to peek into the guts of things to see how they worked. With Gabe, I learned how to identify jewelweed and its more menacing cousin, stinging nettle, on springtime hikes in the Green Mountains. I learned how to knead bread, dry apples, facilitate a meeting, and appreciate Jorge Borges. I learned how to look at a stone by putting all five senses to the task. Most importantly, I learned that a bottomless appetite for questions is, paradoxically, the greatest way to sate a curious mind.

Gabe has drifted off into the fogs of time. He is, I hear through the thinning grapevine, a doctor in Boston. Internal medicine. I remember the explanation he gave years ago for why this type of practice appealed. “I love the puzzle,” he told me. He was jazzed by the chance to figure out what is going on with patients before the specialists get hold of them.

I was out and about this afternoon, and Gabriel’s question bubbled up from the depths. “What did you learn today?” Here are just a few things that captured my mind on January 1, 2012:

• When making tamales, you spread the uncooked cornmeal mixture on the corn husk first, followed by the raw meat mixture and sauce. All wrapped up together, the component parts cook at once inside the pressure cooker.

• A “luthier” is the fancy name for a guitar maker.

• It is only two turns off Monument Drive to get onto the Dulles Toll Road.

• Just because there are six cookies in the Tupperware, you do not have to eat six cookies.

• That thing I sang in church (Praise God from whom all blessings flow. . .) is called a “doxology.” This is a general name for a brief song of praise for the trinity, often sung at the end of a hymn.

• Some mallards, geese, and other waterfowl do not migrate south for the winter. These oddities, called “resident geese” or “resident ducks,” are becoming less of an aberration and more of a menace in some populated areas. Biologists are not exactly sure why the migration signal does not kick on in some waterfowl as it does in others, even others of the same species in the same region. The behavior of the resident birds is not nearly as fascinating as that of their migratory kin, if you think about. For as much as it is studied, migration is a poorly understood phenomenon in the biological world. How is it that these animals have their entire life story written around an annual journey of many thousands of miles?

Not bad for a day that did not see me crawling out of bed until 12:30 in the afternoon.

Most of us ask more questions and learn more things in a day than we can list. Whether we pass the hours bent over a computer or scaling a peak in Shenandoah, we are thinking and engaging. Often, we do not even know how to frame or name the occurrences into which we have inquired, as our minds are chewing on them without our conscious attention. What if we gave voice to our insights, what if we held them up to the light? We might be brink of unearthing something remarkable, even if that something is just the next question.

In the past few months, I have returned repeatedly to the theme of being on the cusp of a significant change. With the divorce final and the true magnitude of my single-mother-ness coming into focus, what faces is me is larger than a single lifestyle makeover. Several unsettling transformations are taking place simultaneously. As I try to capture, observe, make sense, and make choices, I barely catch one re-alignment in the landscape before another tremor shakes things up.

I am not sure exactly what my job is in all this (although there are more than enough people around here who are happy to advise). I wonder daily if I am missing something big. Hell, the whole of the marriage was built on shifting sand that appeared to be solid ground. How will I know if this next step – whatever it is – lands me in a sinkhole? Will I build my next home on a fault line? Is this job a mistake? This class, this financial choice, this school for Bug, this way I am spending my time tonight? Is it right or wrong? Is it safe? What the hell am I supposed to be doing?

Trusting the quaking ground to hold me, to shake me out into something whole, is terrifying. But let’s be honest. Pecos Bill did not lasso twisters just because he was a good guy. Grabbing the ropes and hanging on for the ride? That’s one massive thrill.

You know as well as I do that certain practices can keep you upright even as the bucking earth tries to throw you. New Year’s Resolutions are a catalog of these practices. Walk daily. Speak with kindness. Make art. Plant a garden.

Learn something.

Focusing the mind on the question is one way to stay open to the minor wonders of the world. If you are lucky, it might have the effect of keeping you excited about even the most nauseating changes, and give you pause when you face the temptation of the cave’s familiar comforts. It could even quiet that panicky chatter that besets the bewildered pilgrim at every fork in the road.

Finding a suitable travel companion does not happen overnight, if it happens at all. While you seek your Gabriel, make use of your own quiet witness. Ask the question. Listen for the answer. Carry the knowledge back to the journey while you let it carry you forward. Who knows? If you keep orienting yourself toward learning, you might find you have learned your way.

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